We see too little of playwright Daniel Keene’s work in Sydney.
There was Sydney Theatre Company’s The Long Way Home in 2014, a verbatim piece that is atypical of his work. His 2001 play The Share got a very good production at the Seymour Centre in 2012.
I missed his 2015 play Mother when it touched down briefly at the Joan Sutherland Performing Arts Centre, Penrith in 2016. It’s now installed at Belvoir for short season and I’m glad I caught up. This is essential theatre and as good as any monologue for the stage I’ve seen.
In nine scenes, Mother is a portrait of Christie, in her sixties, alcoholic, homeless and haunted. We meet her picking her way through a pile of rubbish on vacant ground somewhere on the outskirts of Melbourne. Traffic roars in the background. A murder of crows laughs from the treetops.
And for a few minutes, we’re laughing too as Christie (Noni Hazlehurst) unpacks something of her old life for us: her laconic husband Lenny; her “fractious” infant (also called Lenny), and Mrs Kennedy down the street, a woman who sells sly grog made with turpentine.
“Her mother’s recipe from when times were worse,” Christie tells us, “… I always had a bit of powdered milk with it to help it down”.
Though it’s just a couple of years old, Mother has the patina of an antique. Christie’s language is that of our grandparent’s generation. When cops arrive on the scene they say “now missus”. There are mentions of telephone poles but no sense that Christie has ever used a phone or watched a television. The pubs she visits – the Grace Darling, the Prince Patrick, the Leinster Arms, the Moreland – are Melbourne old stock. Mrs Kennedy and her sly grog are the stuff of a Slessor poem transposed to Collingwood.
But Christie’s plight – her poverty, her desire to obliterate her feelings, her inability to look after herself, let alone a child – is timeless. Her story is as old as Medea, as fresh as today’s sad story in the newspaper.
Keene wrote Mother for as a vehicle for Hazlehurst and under Matt Scholten’s direction it takes just seconds for her to disappear into her role. She measures every sentence, every word perfectly and delivers an hour-or-so of pitiless storytelling flawlessly.